Friday, January 29, 2010


At the far end of Meridian Street, running parallel to the southern shore of Lake Venne, sat the Bloody Fist Tavern. To look upon the building, ‘sat’ wouldn’t be quite the word to refer to it. Perhaps hunkered, or squatted, would be a better term. The hulking, dark stone building was constructed out of large smooth rocks that looked to have been brought up from a river bed, although not one that was local. A sign overhanging the front doors creaked lazily in the stormy air, a large black gauntlet, curled in a fist, covered in lurid red painted blood. The structure was two stories tall and in the shape of a large cube, with a second story overhanging the first story in front, forming a long covered porch on which sat an assortment of mismatched stools and rough-hewn round wooden tables. A high pitched roof was covered in wooden tiles, and curved steeply down towards the gutters along the roof’s bottom edges.

Tonight the rain had come down suddenly out of the Barrier Peaks, and the catch buckets at either end of the front porch gutter were already overflowing into the two small alleys that ran along either side of the building. Two or three patrons sat at tables on the porch, drinking ale from surprisingly nice pint glasses, and one poked a long knife into the remainders of a small suckling pig situated in the middle of the table, returning the knife to his mouth with speared pieces of roast meat. Loud, raucous music poured out of the tavern; a fiddle, and what sounded like drums, but could very well have been just glasses being banged on tabletops.

Across the street from the noisy tavern, wind was whipping across dark Lake Venne, forming small waves that lapped at the piers of a line of small boat houses that clustered along the far side of Meridian Street. Under the creaking roof of the boathouse directly across from the Bloody Fist, a shape stands under a cloak, watching the front door.

Garenol shifted the weight of his swords around under the soaking wet cloak and looked up again at the door of the Bloody Fist. No Guards had entered the tavern in the two hours he had been standing here in the rain. No one who appeared to be a magistrate had entered either, although with today’s display, the magistrates may be moving to investigate in the city incognito. Malus obviously hadn’t arrived yet either; the tavern was still noisy and no one had exited the premises headfirst or through a window. “Why did I agree to this?” thought Garenol as he shook pooling water from the hood of his cloak.

As he shrugged, the noise he had been anticipating all evening finally came to his sensitive ear: the sound of a large armored man trying his best to move quietly. The noise was coming from the alleyway to the left of the tavern, and only ears as sensitive as an elf’s would have heard. Garenol chuckled quietly to himself, “Oh, now you try for stealth. Give it up, Malus, you’re as subtle as a smith’s hammer.”

As he watched, the shape of a cloaked Malus emerged at the mouth of the alley, slowly peering down the street, first one way, then the next. Apparently satisfied with the street’s emptiness, Malus strode out of the alley and towards the door of the Bloody Fist.

“I can’t believe he made it,” muttered Garenol, as he now moved to cross the street towards the tavern as well. Malus didn’t turn, as he couldn’t hear Garenol’s footsteps. Malus was up the steps and crossing the tavern’s porch when Garenol gave a low whistle. Malus turned quickly, and narrowed his eyes at Garenol, who was coming up the steps behind him.

“I don’t like it when you do that, Crynus,’ Malus said as Garenol drew close to him.

“Have to keep an advantage over you anyway I can,” Garenol grinned as walked closer. “You never know when I may have to sneak up on you, best to practice when I can.”

“Even with surprise, it wouldn’t matter,” Malus stepped closer to Garenol, now looking down into his gray eyes.

“Easy, you blunt object. Come on, I’ll buy you a drink or five,” Garenol said quickly, as he patted Malus high on the arm and moved around him to the swinging doors leading into the tavern. “Come on, I’m thirsty, and we ought to enjoy ourselves tonight. Tomorrow night, we’ll be back out under the stars.”

“Or in the dungeons. Or dead,” Malus muttered to himself as he followed Garenol into the warmth and light of the Bloody Fist.

The common room inside the tavern was warm. A large, central stone first pit crackled with a hardwood fire, a low metal cylinder catching smoke and funneling into a chimney leading up through the roof. Arranged around the room haphazardly were thick round wooden tables like the ones on the porch, each surrounded by a variable number of tavern guests on stools or chairs. The same nice glassware as the porch was distributed liberally among the tables, as the guests drank the brews that the Bloody Fist had become famous for here in Haarkedamia. The right hand side of the tavern had a steep, narrow stairwell leading up to a number of small inn rooms on the second floor. A podium sat at the foot of the stairs, with a guestbook and a harried porter in his raincoat and high boots, waiting on guests who’d decided to stay the night. A long bar ran along the left side, with a swinging door at either end, from which issued a steady stream of pretty barmaids, and a few chubby cooks, carrying big trays of beer, and even bigger trays of meats, cheeses, and bread. An occasional two cook team would emerge, bent and straining under the weight of the Fist’s specialty, the Big Pig, a whole roast suckling pig, glazed and steaming, on top of an enormous oval pewter platter piled high with roasted root vegetables, with an Allthorian apple shoved into its mouth. Large, leaded glass windows were in abundance along the walls, shining the warmth and hospitality of the tavern out into the city night, and speaking of the tavern’s obvious success, windows not being a cheap extravagance here in the human realms.

The place had become something of an institution, with each largish town in the Confederacy getting its own Bloody Fist over the past ten years. Although each had its own proprietor, typically a nondescript, largish human with a beard of some sort, there were rumors in abundance about the taverns: that they were all run by a large thieves guild, or a cadre of mages, that the places were built by magic, hence the similarities between each one no matter where it was, and that the owners teleported beer and their famous “Big Pigs” to each location, that the tiny barkeep of the Bloody Fist in Haarkedamia City had knocked out a paladin of Tortinen who’d gotten a little mouthy with some elven patrons. Or that they put addictive substances in the beer and pork, or that anything could be had for a price, from anywhere, dwarven spirits, contraband Tribunas Empire wines, teleporting services, summonings, hexes, magical messenger services.

Regardless of the wild rumors, which were numerous, the Bloody Fist always meant to same thing to those who wandered the breadth and width of Haarkedamia, good food and drink, and patrons who would mind their own business. Most people who frequented a Bloody Fist would say that they couldn’t remember the last time a fight had broke out. The few that could always commented on how fast the staff would end it. In all, it was the ideal location for having a few drinks while ducking multiple charges of murder, in the same city the murders had been committed in.

Just inside the door, a large, burly, red-bearded man stood, a boiled leather jerkin barely containing a barrel chest, and thick bronze bands on his arms. He stepped in front of Garenol. “Weapons need to be left here, sir.” He looked over Garenol’s head and into Malus’ eyes, “You too.”

Malus stared for a long moment, then pulled a hand from under his cloak. He handed the man a short, heavy sword. The man continued to stare at Malus. Malus stared back for a few moments, then moved his arms underneath his cloak. His other hand emerged. A belt hung from it, holding a scabbarded longsword, a number of daggers, a sap, and a cruel looking handaxe, the halfmoon of its blade narrowing around the haft to come to a conical spike on the reverse. The man took the belt awkwardly, trying not to gouge himself on any of the points hanging from it.

The rough looking man looked to Garenol. Garenol held his arms wide, spreading his cloak, revealing a loose gray shirt over black leather riding breeches, and high riding boots that folded back at the knee. He was unarmed. The large man nodded and stepped aside.

Malus walked purposefully through the tavern towards the back of the room, away from the two musicians in the front right corner. He could just spy an open table near the back with a few high-backed chairs. Garenol threaded his way through the crowd to the bar.

As Malus approached the table, he pulled a small piece of parchment out of a pocket deep within his cloak. He looked down at it, and mouthed to himself as he read the words that were inscribed therein. He finished as he reached the table, replaced the parchment in its pocket, and moved carefully around the table perimeter to seat himself with his back to the wall. As he sat, he pulled off the large cloak to give to the little porter from near the stairs, who had come closer when he saw that Malus was wearing a wet cloak. The armor underneath the cloak was nondescript, gray and well-worn, but oiled and rust free. He settled into his chair, placing both hands on top of the table and looking around the room slowly.

“Two pints of house ale,” Garenol said loudly as he leaned over the crowded bar. The barkeep, a stout bald man in shirtsleeves and cloth apron, had his back to the bar, and was busily pulling draughts of thick porter from a keg stuffed into a niche in the stone wall. He waved distractedly with one hand in Garenol’s general direction.

“Dammit,” Garenol growled as he fished around in his pocket. He pulled out a handful of coins, quickly putting all the ones marked with oak trees back in his pocket. He took a particularly large gold piece, an Allthorian Imperial, narrowed his eyes at the back of the barkeep’s bald head, wound up and threw it at him.

The coin bounced with a satisfying ‘thunk’ off the barkeep’s skull. The barkeep, startled, dropped the porter glass in his hand, and it shattered at his feet. He whirled around, shouting, “Who is the dead son of a . . .” then he saw Garenol, smirking from under the hair that had fallen down in his face. “bitch. . .” he finished with a stammering whisper. He looked quickly down at the floor, where the huge gold coin shone in a puddle of porter and glass shards. He bent down, and carefully picked up the coin to look at it. “Been up north for a while?” he inquired and he turned the coin between thick fingers.

“Been all over, Dorick. Just send the beer over, and a pig, we may be here for awhile,” Garenol replied, gesturing over to the table where Malus was sitting. Dorick the barkeep looked over to where Garenol pointed, and blanched, his eyes widening as he saw who was seated there.

“Why in the name of Lor would you bring that crazed piece of . . .”he began, his face quickly reddening.

“Quiet!” Garenol hissed, “Or he’ll here you. I’ll keep him in check, just get the food and beer, we’ll do our business and get out of here.”

“Just keep him corralled, Garenol,” the barkeep replied adamantly, “I’ve built a hell of a business here, and I have no intention of letting that . . .that devil do anything stupid in here.”

“Of course, Dorick,” Garenol replied in a conciliatory tone, while sliding more gold across the bar, “I’ve got him. We just have tonight, we’re gone tomorrow.”

“Hah, last time you said that to me, most of the city of Fauston burned the next day,” Dorick said good-naturedly.

“Heh, yeah, I remember. Nothing like that this time, Dorick, I promise,” Garenol said to him as Dorick shook his head at the memory.

“Like I trust a damn word you say, Garenol,” Dorick quickly replied, slipping the handful of gold into his pocket, “Good thing your gold is always good, go sit down.” He turned away from Garenol shaking his head, grabbing two fresh pint glasses from an overhead rack and yelling for a cook to prep another pig.

Garenol watched him go, a thoughtful look in his eyes. He turned to walk back to the table, where Malus sat, hands together on the table with fingers interlaced, staring ahead into the middle distance.

“Hope you’ve got fire insurance, old friend,” Garenol said quietly to himself as he walked back through the crowd. “This is going to be just like Fauston.”

Thursday, January 28, 2010


The two tall men moving through the crowd were unremarkable at first glance. Although both had a number of inches in height over most of the sojourners bound for the city, they were not dressed in a manner any different from all the others who were moving along at the excited pace of tourists and ambitious merchants. Both were covered in gray cloaks that looked to obscure large packs, and the larger of the two clanked when he took an errant step into a divot in the roadbed or moved quickly around a new pile of ox dung. The other dodged these effortlessly, making little apparent noise as he sliced untouched through the throngs of peasants.

But the whole of the crowd clanked when it moved, the entire line leading to the city was cacophonous with the noise of metal pots and pans clanking against wagon sides and floors, the rattle of heavy chains around the yokes of the large southern oxen, the occasional sound of cheap chain armor tinkling as some young lad, hopeful of a mercenary position, or perhaps even possessed of a letter from his town elders commending him to the Guards, loped along, sweating under the stifling heat of metal adornment and martial excitement. All the noise and excitement directed at Venne, where a hero known only in legend had recently come back to life, if only for a little while.

For now, Valister Olorin lay in an unwakable sleep deep in the heart of the church of Lor, the Crystal Cathedral, a monument to the god Lor that had been raised in the middle of the new city as Haarkedamia slowly rebuilt itself at the end of the Kasnarian invasion. The temple itself was a marvel, hundreds of feet of impossibly graceful spires of milky white crystals, flying buttresses supporting them that shone in the sun like diamonds, every detail of the stonework, walls, floors, and ceilings intricately inlaid with scenes from Lorian legend: the creation of humans, the war against the devils, the councils of the gods. All who saw the Cathedral exclaimed about its impossible details and construction, claiming that is must have been constructed by magic. And it was, but not the type they knew, it had been created by the magic of commerce. Mountains of gold from the coffers of Lor’s churches had gone into the hands of the world’ greatest artisans: dwarven stonecutters, elven sculptors and woodworkers, even a handful of gnomish gemcutters. All had been handsomely rewarded by the church of Lor to build this monument to his majesty. And now, this place housed an equally impressive legend, the savior of Haarkedamia, in unending slumber.

“These damn crowds. Every minute we don’t make it inside the walls this job is getting harder.” The quieter moving of the two figures threw his hood back in a frustrated manner, quickly scanning the people around him, his gray eyes seeking out any reactions or recognition. Finding none, he turned back to the larger man. “It’s going to be impossible to move through this mob even when we get inside. Venne can’t handle all these idiots. Where are they going to stay? There’ll be urchins and grandmothers sleeping in wagons up and down every street in the city.” He shook his head vigorously as he looked down at his feet. “Why the hell did we agree to do this?”

“Because we wanted their money.” The voice was without inflection, and the larger man did not remove his hood to acknowledge his companion’s frustration and gestures. He continued to stare ahead at the Eastgate portcullis, thrown wide to the crushing mass of humanity. He could already see that the Guard had already given up on trying to search every wagon headed into the city. If they could just get in the gate before nightfall, which was close, they would be fine. “Besides, you know what this place will be like once we do our job. It’ll free us up to take care of a few more things before we get out.” The voice was matter of fact, as if paying careful attention to a very tedious activity, neutral but careful. The large man shrugged under his shapeless cloak, triggering a number of small clinks and pings as he shifted his wide-set shoulders.

“But Tacit won’t. . .”

“Tacit isn’t here, Crynus. You’d do well to remember that. Whatever he is off doing, that’s a choice he made. We’re here. This has to happen.” The voice didn’t rise, there was no emphasis, simply the statements. Like reading off a bill of goods.

The smaller of the two sighed, “Malus, we knew damn well when we took this job that we were going against…”

“Against? Have you chosen a side? Has Garenol Crynus come to choose where he stands in the coming war? Really? Does your father know?” Finally a hint of inflection in the voice. Taunting, almost a laugh.

“Do not mention my father again, Malus.” Garenol had stopped walking, and was slowly pulling black hair out of his face. His cloak had been pushed back, revealing a number of sword and dagger handles protruding from the layers of cloth.

“Keep moving, idiot. You have nothing to prove to me.” The voice had gone back to neutral.

With a grunt, Garenol whipped his cloak back over his weapons. When he looked around again, he noticed that a slow moving wagon had come up beside him during the conversation. The large wagon had three children in it, two boys and a little girl. All threepeered over the edge of their father’s wagon, eyes wide and blue. They’d never seen what their dad called a high elf before. Garenol’s pulled back hair had revealed pale skin, angular features, and the high pointed ears common to the race. These kids had seen wood elves, the short, ruddy skinned elves more common here in the south, but never an elf like this: over six feet tall, pale, gray eyed and imperious looking. The revealed abundance of weapons hadn’t helped. The kids looked scared. His smile did little to relieve the looks on their faces.

Turning away from the wagon, Garenol stalked up behind Malus, who had not bothered to stop moving, the pair now perhaps a quarter mile from the gate. Already along the sides of the road, merchants and vendors too impatient to make the gates had pulled to the side of the path, let down gates on their wagons or thrown out colorful blankets on the hard packed soil and begun hawking wares of every type: food, drinks, blankets and small tents, various kitchen equipment designed for small fires. Everything for sale hinted at a long occupation of the city by folks coming in out of the country. One enterprising individual had already carved a number of sticks in the style of Olorin’s legendary walking stick, and was plying a brisk trade.

As the wagons and people began to bottleneck in an attempt to all move through the city gate, Garenol fell in behind Malus, laughing quietly to himself as he thought of Malus as his battering ram. He put out a thin hand to place in the middle of Malus’ back to let himself be lead through the crowd, as he was too busy looking up at the walls and battlements of the Eastgate of Venne. The outer wall was thick stone, tan streaked with darker browns, quarried out of the nearest of the Barrier Peaks. The outside had been smoothed carefully by stonemasons to prevent grappling hooks or skilled climbers from being able to enter the city undetected. Atop the wall were first a row of arrow slits, in ten foot intervals, the tall thin vertical slits slashed horizontally with five foot breaks for possible crossbow use. That feature spoke to Garenol of dwarven craftsmen, and he wondered at the motivation of the dwarves leaving their stronghold of Coryntor, high up in the Barrier Peaks, to come work on a human castle.

Looking up as they moved under the first portcullis, he saw the murder holes in the roof where hot oil or boiling lead could be poured on top of invaders in case the first gate was breached. Garenol’s father had once joked to him about that feature in Old Venne, and how little good it had done the Guard back then. “Kind of hard to dump oil on invaders coming in through thirty of forty unplanned holes in your walls.” His father, always so obsessed with protection, and now a paranoid king. He deeply hoped he wouldn’t be recognized.

As he was gazing around, taking in as many details of the city entrance as he could, he lost track of what was happening in front of him, as Malus moved through the crowd like a tiller. Malus was focusing on the second gate already, he didn’t care about the little details, as he knew Garenol would already have committed most of these things to memory. What worried him was more immediate, that people on foot were being channeled into a single file line by the Guard, and being moved through a small side gate next to the main, where they were being examined carefully by a team of guards. And a magistrate, his blue robes and pendant of office clean and official looking in this sea of browns and grays. A scroll case hung from his leather belt along with a number of small pouches.

“Garenol, you need to pay attention.” Malus was moving his arms underneath his shapeless cloak, and metallic noises were emanating. “This may not be as easy as we thought.”

Garenol finally took his eyes off the fortifications and stood on tiptoe, looking over Malus’ shoulder at the quickly consolidating line of people on foot. “Damn,” he said under his breath as he began to quickly size up the situation: number of guards, height of the walls around them, bystanders.

“Just keep moving, and don’t make eye contact, Malus,” Garenol said quietly as he pulled his hair back over most of his face. Malus’ eyes had always been the only remarkable thing about him, wholly black circles where most had brown or blue. They were disconcerting, somehow both menacing and disaffected. He was not particularly popular in the rougher taverns. Garenol couldn’t count the number of nights he’d slept on the ground outside a town instead of in a warm inn bed because Malus had invited the town ruffian outside the bar to repeat an off comment. If he’d just let them go back inside after he’d dealt with them . . .

“Are you paying attention?” Malus said as he rolled his shoulders and stretched his neck. “If this sours, we will need to move fast, which way are you going to go?”

“If I need to, I’m just going up,” Garenol jerked his head toward the closer of the two walls. “You?”

“Same as always,” Malus replied calmly.

“Shit. Can you please just get through this quietly?” Garenol hissed over Malus’ shoulder as they drew closer to the small archway where five guards and a robed figure stood overseeing the pilgrims entering the city.

“I’m always quiet,’ replied Malus. “Just make sure that you remember where our room is.”

“The Bloody Fist Tavern, yes, I know. Look, Malus, just look straight ahead at that arch and try not to. . .”

“You, sir. Please step this way.” The voice of bored but attentive authority. An older sergeant of the Guard with a thick red mustache was waving his hand half-heartedly at Malus.

“Just remember, Malus. No one should know who we are,” Garenol pleaded as Malus stepped slowly towards the waiting Guard.

“No one knows who I am, Garenol,” Malus said over his shoulder in a joking tone as he stepped close to the Guard and looked down at him.

“Oh god,” Garenol muttered to himself as he slowly began to move his hands closer to weapons. His eyes rolled back slightly as he was trying to remember a spell.

“What’s your business in Venne today, sir?” the guard asked in a bored voice for what was probably the four hundredth time that afternoon. He finally looked up at Malus. His eyes widened as he made eye contact, and then he stepped back involuntarily.

“Debt collection,” Malus replied.

“I see,” stammered the Guard, while gesturing to a private for the board he was using to mark notes. “How long do you plan on staying in Venne?”

“As long as it takes,” Malus grinned.

The Guard cleared his throat, “Very well. Make your mark here on the tablet, go with Lor.”

The sergeant was already looking back to the line of people for someone less disturbing to question. Malus walked towards the door with Garenol trailing. “That was a bit close,” said Garenol, “Thanks for not just killing...”

“You, sir. The debt collector.” The robed magistrate who was standing with the group of Guardsmen was gesturing at Malus. “Could you take that cloak off? If you are bringing wares into the city we need to see them for tariffs.”

“Of course, sir,” Malus’ black eyes sparkled as he reached to unclasp the brooch, a gray metal oak tree, holding the large, shapeless cloak.

Garenol sighed behind Malus as he, too, pushed back the edges of his cloak away from his arms. “The Bloody Fist? Meridian Road by the lake?”

“Right,” replied Malus quietly as he dropped the cloak nonchalantly into the street. The younger Guards gasped as the few veterans among them drew their short, heavy swords. The magistrate scrambled to get behind the Guards, fumbling with a pouch on his belt and already gesturing in the forms to release a spell.

Malus stretched his arms back over his head, revealing a full suit of plate armor, black enameled. A sword and hand axe hung hafts forward from a black leather belt around the armor. “The mage?” Malus inquired over his shoulder as he drew both weapons.

“Right,” replied Garenol. He gestured around Malus at the magistrate, and a small crackling ball of purple energy flew towards him, emitting sparks and shooting out small bolts of static electricity. The magistrate froze in reaching into the belt pouch and pitched forward into the street. The ball zipped towards him, and upon hitting the mage, there was a crackling flash of light and a hollow thump.
When everyone’s eyes had readjusted from the blinding flash, the mage was a dripping red film covering most of the Guards and the small shack behind them, Malus was already among the remaining Guards, swinging both weapons with a speed that would not be believed of a man his side.

Garenol was gone.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


The road into Venne was teeming with merchants of every type. Enormous, slow wagons creaking under their weight of foodstuffs moved along slowly in the humid spring air, making their way purposefully towards the weather beaten walls of the new city. Everyone in the long, impromptu caravans kept calling it the new city, although the name was misleading: Venne had been razed during the first Kasnarian invasion, almost five hundred years earlier, and the city had been rebuilt to the south and west of its original foundations by about five miles, atop a hill more conducive to protection from siegecraft. People said that the new city was impregnable, that it represented, in stone, the strength and unity of the new Haarkedamian confederacy. In truth, the city was built as a focal point; a dam to break a tide of potential invaders streaming down out of the cold Barrier Peak mountains into the fertile hills and plains of Haarkedamia. On a lone, small hill sandwiched in between two of the Barrier Peak ranges’ greatest bastions, Venne stands.

In between the large, ox drawn food wagons, there moved innumerable smaller wagons: pony and donkey driven field carts, hand drawn two wheeled contraptions that looked to fall apart at any minute, and hordes of people just hauling everything they can upon their backs. Despite the drab attire and appearance of the miles-long line, the mood is a raucous, cheerful one. Everywhere are families talking excitedly while riding high atop their harvests of potatoes and squash. Grandparents sit on the backs of the family wagons and gesture to the low area impressed into the plain off to the right where Old Venne once stood, telling the tales of the invasion as they remember them, as they were passed onto them by their own grandparents.

Stories of black haired, pale skinned Kasnarian knights storming down out of the mountains on dark horses, gray standards on long poles unfurling to show the Tree: the great looming Kasnarian Oak that is the holy symbol of Kil, the god of the West, and thus god of all Kasnarians. An unstoppable horde of human violence, conquest, and fervor, rolling out of the West into the small, fragmented handful of states and free cities that made up the loose confederacy of Haarkedamia. The stories have not lost their potency. Children’s eyes widen at the picture of black lacquered plate armor and great hammers of gray steel bearing down upon their staid village lives. They form pictures in their minds: peat houses burning, chickens and ducks scattering in a panic through the dirt roads they’ve always known as screams sound out in the dawn of an early raid. They’ve heard these stories from birth. They know of the followers of Kil. They all have pictures in their minds. Of the elementalists.

None of these children are afraid of magic, they’ve known it all their lives. Even the poorest household has had a life touched in some small way by the essence, the magic that the East has known since before they bothered to write down anything. It suffuses their lives, the town priest can usually cure a leg broken in a fall from a split-rail fence with a prayer and a wave of a holy symbol. Hedge wizards sometimes stop into the town center, make a show of lights and sounds, sparks and illusions, takes a handful of silver from the appreciative townfolk, and then in turn spending the small handful of coins drinking the local beer and eyeing the barmaids before moving on, back to their mysterious work and pet frog that talks. A local merchant or minor noble may have some trinket they’ve all seen: a torch that never goes out, or the noble young rake who can walk from one end of a village to the other and still have boots that shine. These minor magics have always existed here, and are simply a part of a comfortable, known, life. But these comforts and familiarities still don’t console a child who hears a tale about the elementalists.

Men given over to the will of a god who controls the most basic aspects of reality. All facets of their own reality seen as weapons of destruction. The air they breathe bursting into flames, whole regiments of colorful soldiers turned to stone and then shattered into pebbles, stock ponds churning into boiling, sulfurous sores in the landscape. Even the essential distinctions of life and death skewed horribly: brave Haarkedamians who dropped dead at the merest gesture, whole town cemeteries emptying themselves of shambling corpses and skeletons, now endowed with glowing blue fires where eyes once dwelled, and possessed of inhuman strength and resolve, not recognizing old friends, neighbors, or family members, murderous in intent and deed.

The whole of the children know these stories, and gaze down the hill where Old Venne used to stand, picturing the largest battle their world has ever known. A battle outside the city walls. A desperate breakout attempt by the Guard, Haarkedamia’s small army. A fleeting chance to get out and rally the remaining armies of the Confederacy. As the breakout attempt begins, something goes wrong with the city itself. Seeing the city walls falling as the Kasnarian host ignores the galloping spearhead of Haarkedamian Guards and pours into the long suffering city, hearing the crackle of flames and the explosions as the elementalists who had moved the earth itself to get under the city walls finally blew apart those walls in a conflagration of flame and force. Feeling the shock and outrage of the Eastgate guards as their weapons and armor turned to dust before gale force winds scattered them into the dark of midnight like autumn’s final leaves.

Then the hero emerges. Valister Olorin. The name all these children know. The man who, alone in the city center, where he kept a humble home near the bell tower of the Lorian’s Crystal Cathedral, turned back the tide of invasion. Without a sword. Without armor. No helmet. His old brown robes and a walking stick. One man. Thirty thousand of Kasnaria’s best warriors, siege-crafters, and elementalists.

It was over in less than twenty minutes.

Over one hundred miles away, elves in the small Kingdom of Wood’s End were awoken by the final sounding of the Lorian Bell at Old Venne. The bell pealed four times, the final time so loudly that the few survivors of the breakout attempt who were still close by would complain to their final breaths of ringing deep in their old ears. At the final peal, the bell was heard to crack, and the city itself began to crumble in silence, all voices inside its violated walls quieted. The city slowly fell inward, as if it had once breathed, but was now dying. In the end, all that remained was miles of rubble, save for the city center.

In the clear of the town square, no stone had fallen inward. The area was clean. All that remained was Olorin, seated upon the wooden stool that had sat outside his house for years. He was unmarked, but winded. There were no other bodies, invader or defender. Whatever else had lived in within the city walls when the bell pealed, was just no longer there.

Those few who came back to look for survivors had found the seated Olorin, and approached him slowly, as he was the only living thing they’d seen in the long, careful clambering route they had taken from where the walls used to be to the city center. As the tale goes, the ranking soldier (a newly raised Eagle in the Confederacy army, a young man of twenty years) approached him carefully and laid his hand on Olorin’s shoulder. Olorin sighed, and ran a hand over his hair, which was now suffused with white where once only a chestnut color had been.

Then he rose, dusted off his robe, and faced the young Eagle.

“Are there any left in the city?” he inquired in a rasping, weary voice.

“No sir. We can’t find any bodies. But no one came out.” replied the amazed young man.

“Well then. I should rest. They’ll be back. I’ll have to be ready.” Olorin replied in a calm manner.

With that, Valister Olorin collapsed into the soldier’s arms. The soldier laid him gingerly onto the cobblestones and called in vain for a priest. His company’s cleric had died in the chaos surrounding the fall of the city. No one responds. The limping, dusty soldiers carefully wrapped Olorin in their remaining battle standard, and carried him from the rubble. He had ceased breathing.

Three days ago, an honor guard at Olorin’s Tomb in the heart of the new city had heard an unlikely sound: a knock, on the door behind him, coming from within the tomb. And a hoarse voice was heard to say, “They’re coming, I need my walking stick.” Followed by a muffled thud. Twenty minutes later, all the men the guard could find had finally pried open the tomb’s door, to find Valister Olorin, chestnut hair streaked with white, in an old brown robe, collapsed near the door, breathing but unconscious.

Today, all come to the city, to see the hero reborn.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

on fantasy

I’ve been reading the first book of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Since George RR Martin has shriveled up and quit writing his A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve had a hole in my heart that can only be filled by really well-developed and expansive fantasy fiction. And Erikson’s series seems to deliver on all fronts regarding my reading needs. It is massively complicated, populated by a cast of characters roughly as long as the list for War and Peace, and is currently nine books long. And there is a co-creator, Ian Esslemont, who is writing his own series of five books set in the world that the two authors created together. As a role-playing world. Of course.

I miss role-playing more these days than I used to. I have had this pet theory for years that my interest in various hobbies waxes and wanes, with certain things that I am interested in becoming more or less prevalent in my daily thoughts in a cyclical fashion, and I find myself currently thinking about role playing games. And more specifically, the stories that develop in a person’s mind as a result of role playing.

It came to me last night as I regaled my patient and long-suffering wife with a tale about a character that the creators of the RPG Godlike had included in their rulebook. She nodded and listened patiently to me as I spouted off a list of characteristics about this fictitious person, and her role in the formation of a fictionalized version of a real country. Essentially, I have an impressive depth of memory about a made up person in a game that probably less than 5000 people in the world know of.

Now, if I were, say, a professor of English literature, this wouldn’t give me any cause for reflection. Of course I would have this set of things I know about, say, Boo Radley, if I were a teacher who instructed students in a class that was reading To Kill A Mockingbird. But to be able to say that I have a deep personal knowledge of Raistlin Majere, a wizard in a series of pulpy novels I read as a teenager, makes me wonder at the value of that information. And that isn’t the deepest part I was reaching for. To wonder about Raistlin is a minor concern; someone was paid to write that series of books, it was a popular series, lots of folks share that body of knowledge.

My real wonderment comes at the degree to which I remember things from games I participated in 10-15 years ago. I can’t remember where I put a stack of homework that I collected last week, but I can tell you exactly what my character did to become prince of the city in a Vampire game I participated in over 10 years ago. I still have to be reminded of family birthdays, but I still remember the night my old friend John’s character beheaded an arch-elementalist, stole his sword, and ran off. Even further back, I remember staying up an entire night once with my friend Jack in 1991, revising the rules of Dungeons & Dragons to govern a conflict we had set up on the floor between two forces of Lego Castle knights. That was 19 years ago.

I suppose that the degree to which people find the pursuit of these fantasy stories to be enjoyable or worthwhile is the degree to which these things are remembered. And I find this to hold true for my self to some degree. Then I wonder about the degree to which those of us who are truly enamored of fantasy (both written fiction and interactive sorts) tend to denigrate those pursuits to a larger public. I also have a taste for what I guess I would call more serious literature, and consider myself well-read in classic literature as well as contemporary literature, considering my age and available time. But whenever I think to myself that I’ve had enough Cormac McCarthy or Don DeLillo for awhile, and seek out something like the books mentioned above, I feel guilty. I feel I am somehow regressing, or indulging a craving I should be above these trivial writings. Like a renowned chef hitting the drive-thru at Taco Bell.

The reason for this pondering is fairly simple. When I make attempts to write, I tend to find it easiest to simply write about either an experience that I have had that involved fantasy games, or to extrapolate upon these created worlds by adding characters and events. I tend to find that having the context nailed down aids in the creation of narrative. Having this sort of, I guess geographical and temporal, grounding tends to make it easier to write down whatever it is.

I found this true with my old blog as well. Typically I was able to write easiest when I had a focused, narrow, context. I would just talk about fifth grade, or about my bad taste in music. It would seem that the crux of where my thought is leading is that I have somehow convinced myself that writing out the fantasy stuff that appeals to me is somehow easier or less worthwhile than taking a stab at what I guess we would call a ‘serious’ book.

Of course, that makes my wondering seem grandiose. In all honesty, I’ve tried to write something more sustained than an article or paper many times before. The effect is always the same. At some point, I will stop writing, get frustrated, bored or self-judging, and pitch the unfinished effort. But most of those efforts have been of a ‘serious’ intent. I’ve never just sat down and started typing out ‘elves, magic, swords’ crap.

And maybe that’s because I have this weird dichotomy that maybe doesn’t really exist. Fiction is fiction, and although it is unlikely that a Forgotten Realms paperback will win a Pulitzer, I think we can all respect the amount of money The Lord of the Rings made. And even if Lord of the Rings has been embraced by a more serious literary circle, it wasn’t always that way.

Monday, January 25, 2010

an average morning

I woke up choking ten minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off. Immediately, the dream subsided and I was left with a vague feeling of unease. Something in the dream about a bus, and a small, narrow bench that I was trying to get comfortable on while foreign voices murmured incomprehensibly at the periphery. Asian characters on signs passing by the dirt stained window. Skies full of gray-brown billowing soot and ash. I am coughing out pollution in a dream when I awaken to coughing out the remains of a week long illness that demanded antibiotics, steroids, and two days of my paid sick leave. Dammit.

The shower this morning has a very questionable force behind it and I sigh as I clamber in under the weak stream of warm water, trying to warm and wake myself and shake off both the cold of the tile floor and the cold that is still in residence in my head and chest. I hang my head to get under the showerhead that was obviously hung for people shorter than I, close my head and begin the semi-automatic ritual of scrubbing down and waking up.

And then, just like every cursed morning for the past 20 days, it comes again. The damned words. Calling out to me from some unused, primordial part of my brain as it is coming back to the waking world. They just emerge, unwanted, unwarranted, fully-formed with the accompanying, maddening music. The siren’s call of their insanity forcing from me a frustrated growl as I hit my forehead against the unforgiving, passively observant tile of the shower.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass. One of these days you’re gonna break your glass. Don’t bring me down.”

I stifle a scream to avoid waking my peacefully slumbering little family, and bite down on my bottom lip until I am pretty sure I draw blood. The same song for three weeks now, every morning, in the shower. In my head. Insistent. Nonsensical. Pulsating. Throbbing. Daring every fiber of my sanity to discern any meaning or significance in its content. Demons playing on horrible flutes for a blind god at the center of a fragile soul.

It isn’t that I hate Electric Light Orchestra. As far as British rock bands go, they’re no Beatles or Stones, but they aren’t The Bees Gees or anything truly horrifying. They’re middle of the road seventies butt-rock. And like many bands of the middle seventies, they had that lofty idea of combining rock with some other style or genre, in their case they wanted classical overtones, which I would suspect throws them in the same bin as other proggy music nerds like Yes or King Crimson. However, ELO succumbed to the disease of the times and became more disco oriented as time progressed.

Yet for none of this relatively humble biography does ELO really deserve the hate that I reserve for the song “Don’t Bring Me Down”. It isn’t that it’s a terrible song. In fact, it’s a simple, uptempo, slightly catchy seventies pop rock song. It enjoys a respectable rotation at every classic rock station I’ve ever listened to in a sustained manner. Most people of a certain age (boomers) recognize the song and enjoy it. It is of a piece with all its contemporaries. Yet, it is also the bane of my existence on these lonely, cold mornings when the equipment in my head is slowly crackling back to life after a night full of God knows what: non-linear horribleness that I can rarely piece together the next morning.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

There exists a break in this song where we just have this line acting as a deep sinister pothole in the stream of thought and rhythm that typically accompanies listening to any given song. And when I hear this song, I know it is coming. The tune is catchy, and of a tempo to initiate toe-tapping, perhaps even a touch of head-nodding. It is an insistent, but not punishing, beat. A pleasant song to catch on a long drive to somewhere else. But here, deep into the meat of the song, there is this line.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

The first time you hear this song it doesn’t register. The first thirty or forty times you hear it, but don’t pause. After this stage you know the song as a familiar friend and can sing along. So you sing along. At a brisk pace down I-30 to spend a lazy weekend in another state with old friends, you begin surfing to unfamiliar radio stations and hit upon that old soft slipper: the classic rock station. You hear the strains of “Don’t Bring Me Down” begin to segue out of a Boston song you lament missing. You know this song. You turn it up a little. The feet turn into a mile as you absent-mindedly sing along.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

You pause in your singing. Strange line. You shrug, and keep singing. Song’s over now. Oh, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” is next. You forget about the snake in the grass. You switch to the noises you make during “Iron Man”. Duhhnn, duhn, duhn , nuh nuh. Duh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh, nuh nuh nuh. You forget. Your conscious mind is saved. But somewhere, back where your mind keeps a few questionable sexual encounters and the steps of the Krebs Cycle, a seed grows…

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

In Zen Buddhism, there exists the concept of the koan: a question that has no answer. The koan exists to strip the mind of the initiate into the mysteries of Zen of rational thought. It is a rock upon which reason is broken. It is there, in their mind, every day for meditation. “What was your face before you were born?” “Did Adam and Eve have navels?”

I gave up the illusion that I had the discipline to be Buddhist long ago. But here, in the midst of what’s shaping up to be a nice little life, I have been given my koan.

After that first time where you pause on the lyric, you will continue to pause. The line doesn’t make any sense. It does. Not. Make. Sense. And at first that’s fine, that’s just fine. Lots of songs have lyrics that don’t make sense. Michael Stipe made a career out of being obtuse. Beck never makes sense. The Talking Heads were rarely coherent in any literal way. It should be OK.

But it isn’t. Not here. Not in this silly little song.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

What does that mean? The author clearly addresses someone he finds attractive in some way. Sexually? Platonically? Is he hungry and addressing food? Is he cold and addressing a fire? Something looks good to him. OK, fine. We can deal with that. Attraction to things ‘other’ to us makes us all human.

Looking good ‘like’. ‘Like’ and ‘as’ indicate the utilization of a simile. We remember similes from middle school English. We are being given a comparison between two unlike things. If a man stands astride the world like a Colossus, he is not actually a huge bronze statue. That’s a simile.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

A snake in the grass. You. Are looking good. Snake in the grass. Simile involves the comparison of two unlike objects. OK. It would be silly to say something like: The bath towel looks like a big hand towel. Well, no shit. That’s not a simile. A simile enriches the understanding of the reader. If I tell you that your student is roughly as smart as a garden gnome, I am enriching your understanding of your child’s vast stupidity by comparing disparate objects; in this case an inanimate yard decoration and your ballistically stupid offspring.

There’s no enrichment here. You can’t just look good like a snake in the grass. Even if we are stretching to use a bible reference, and saying that the ‘You’ in question in the line is as tempting as Eve’s serpential tempter, why make it so vague? This isn’t Faulkner, I shouldn’t have to wrack my brain this hard to rationalize this explanation. And even still the answer is unsatisfying. It isn’t as if the rest of the song builds on this theme. In fact, this is it. Just this one line.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”

The effect on the brain is the same as if one were struck by a mallet. Fixed stare, jaw slightly agape. An occasional blink. There is no answer. There is no sense. Any attempt to understand meets with failure. Ultimately the only answer is the one that the hearer produces to cauterize the wound, to protect their own sanity. For the sake of the brain, an understanding is coughed up involuntarily, an ignorance is cultivated.

But it is all a part of the courtesy curtain separating the healthy birthing mother from the terminally cancerous and wholly alone old crone. Whatever sense the human mind makes of this song lyric is simply a survival mechanism, a poster of a calm, rational world barely overlaying the hole in the world from which teems the churning abyss of chaos. We can’t afford to let ourselves peek under the curtain to truly wonder at the meaninglessness of the lyric, and the horror that it points to. To do so confirms Nietzsche’s great fear for a people unable to grapple with greatness, that the abyss will gaze back into those who look. To look is to

be alone in a barely adequate shower on an early Monday morning in winter, slowly bouncing one’s head off the unresponsive tile, staring down into water circling a drain, in a world that really does not make any sense.

“You’re looking good just like a snake in the grass.”